South Korea in demographic crisis as many stop having children

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Yoo Young Yi’s grandmother gave birth to six children. Her mother gave birth to two. Yoo doesn’t want anyone.

“My husband and I like babies so much … but there are things we have to sacrifice if we raise children,” said Yoo, a 30-year-old employee at a financial company in Seoul. “So it’s become a matter of choosing between two things and we’ve agreed to focus more on ourselves.”

There are many like Yoo in South Korea who have chosen either not to have children or not to marry. Other advanced countries have similar trendsbut South Korea’s demographic crisis is much worse.

South Korea’s statistics agency announced in September that the total fertility rate – the average number of babies born to each woman in their reproductive years – was 0.81 last year. It is the world’s lowest for the third consecutive year.

The population fell for the first time in 2021, raising concerns that a falling population could seriously hurt the economy – the world’s 10th largest – due to labor shortages and higher welfare spending as the number of elderly people rises and the number of taxpayers shrinks.

President Yoon Suk Yeol has ordered politicians to find more effective steps to deal with the problem. The fertility rate, he said, is declining, even as South Korea spent 280 trillion won ($210 billion) over the past 16 years to try to reverse the trend.

Many young South Koreans say that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they do not feel an obligation to have a family. They cite the uncertainty of a bleak job market, expensive housing, gender and social inequality, low levels of social mobility and the huge costs of raising children in a brutally competitive society. Women also complain about one enduring patriarchal culture which forces them to do much of the childcare while enduring discrimination at work.

“In a nutshell, people think our country is not an easy place to live,” said Lee So-Young, a population policy expert at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. “They believe that their children cannot have a better life than them, and therefore question why they should bother having babies.”

Many people who fail to get into good schools and get decent jobs feel they have become “dropouts” who “cannot be happy” even if they marry and have children because South Korea lacks advanced social safety nets, says Choi Yoon Kyung, expert at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education. She said South Korea failed to establish such welfare programs during its explosive economic growth in the 1960s to 80s.

Yoo, the finance worker in Seoul, said that until she went to college, she strongly wanted a baby. But she changed her mind when she saw female office colleagues calling their children from the company toilet to check on them or leaving early when their children were sick. She said her male colleagues did not have to do this.

“After seeing this, I realized that my concentration at work would be greatly diminished if I had babies,” Yoo said.

Her 34-year-old husband, Jo Jun Hwi, said he doesn’t think it’s necessary to have children. An interpreter at an information technology company, Jo said he wants to enjoy his life after years of grueling job hunting that left him “feeling like I was standing on the edge of a cliff.”

There are no official figures on how many South Koreans have chosen not to marry or have children. But records from the National Bureau of Statistics show that there were about 193,000 marriages in South Korea last year, down from a peak of 430,000 in 1996. The agency’s data also show that about 260,600 babies were born in South Korea last year, down from 691,200 in 1996 .and a peak of 1 million in 1971. The latest figures were the lowest since the statistics office began collecting such data in 1970.

Kang Han Byeol, a 33-year-old graphic designer who has decided to remain single, believes that South Korea is not a healthy place to raise children. She cited frustration over gender inequality, widespread digital sex crimes against women, such as spy cameras hidden in public toilets, and a culture that ignores those pushing for social justice.

“I can consider marriage when our society becomes healthier and gives more equal status to both women and men,” Kang said.

Kang’s 26-year-old roommate Ha Hyunji also decided to remain single after her married female friends advised her not to get married because most of the housework and childcare falls to them. Ha worries about the huge amount of money she would spend on future children’s private tuition to prevent them from falling behind in a education obsessed nation.

“I can have a fun life without marriage and enjoy my life with my friends,” said Ha, who runs a cocktail bar in Seoul.

Until the mid-1990s, South Korea maintained birth control programs that were originally launched to slow the country’s post-war population explosion. The nation distributed free birth control pills and condoms at public medical centers and offered exemptions from military reserve training for men if they had a vasectomy.

United Nations figures show that a South Korean woman gave birth to an average of about four to six children in the 1950s and 60s, three to four in the 1970s and less than two in the mid-1980s.

South Korea has offered a number of incentives and other support programs to those who give birth to many children. But Choi, the expert, said the fertility rate has fallen too quickly to see any tangible effects. During a cabinet meeting last month, officials said they would soon formulate comprehensive measures to cope with demographic challenges.

South Korean society still frowns upon those who remain childless or single.

In 2021, when Yoo and Jo announced their decision to live without children on their YouTube channel, “You youth, you youth,” some posted messages calling them “selfish” and asking them to pay more taxes. The messages also called Jo “sterile” and accused Yoo of “gaslighting” her husband.

Lee Sung-jai, a 75-year-old resident of Seoul, said it is the “order of nature” for mankind to marry and have children.

“These days I see some (unmarried) young women walking dogs in strollers and saying they are their mothers. Did they give birth to those dogs? They are really crazy,” he said.

Seo Ji Seong, 38, said she is often called a patriot by older people for having many babies, even though she did not give birth to them in the national interest. She is expecting a fifth child in January.

Seo’s family recently moved to a rent-free apartment in the city of Anyang, jointly provided by the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corporation and the city for families with at least four children. Seo and her husband, Kim Dong Uk, 33, receive other government benefits, although raising four children remains financially difficult.

Kim said he enjoys watching each of his children grow up with different personalities and talents, while Seo feels their children’s social skills are helped as they play and compete with each other at home.

“They’re all so sweet. That’s why I’ve kept giving birth to babies even though it’s hard,” Seo said.

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